"The Joy of Love" - Chapter Four
“When someone loves you, your name is safe in their mouth.” – A child’s response to the question “What is love?”
“You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine,’” – from the song “Love is a Rose” by Neil Young
We now arrive at what Pope Francis intends to be the core of The Joy of Love: Chapter Four, which we will look at now, and Chapter Five, which we will look at in the next issue of Harvest. As the Holy Father writes: “We cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging the growth, strengthening, and deepening of conjugal and family love. Indeed, the grace of the sacrament of marriage is intended before all else ‘to perfect the couple’s love.’” In order to “encourage the growth of family love,” Pope Francis devotes Chapter Four to a meditation on the role of love in marriage.
What does the Holy Father mean by the word “love”? As he himself notes, “The word ‘love’ is commonly used and often misused.” He does not define “love” in any single sentence. However, we can summarize the thrust of his reflections on love in this way: to love, in a fully Christian sense, is to see the good in the other, to will the good of the other, and to act accordingly.
Pope Francis describes what Christian love looks like by offering us an extended reflection on St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient… love is kind…” and so forth. Anyone who has been involved in wedding liturgies knows that this reading is easily the most popular among all the options given for a Catholic wedding. Although Paul did not write it specifically with marriage in mind, its relevance to married life is obvious to all who read and reflect on it.
The Holy Father’s words on 1 Corinthians 13 are an excellent examination of conscience not only for married couples (or those planning to be married) but also for anyone in any kind of ministry in the Church, indeed, for any Christian. If God is love, as St. John tells us, and if we are created to be in God’s image, then we need to know what love is and to act accordingly. Pope Francis’ words are most helpful here. In this short essay, there is no space to quote even some of the best and most profound lines. Paragraphs 118 and 119 alone would radically change our society if we took them seriously. Pope Francis gives us much, much more in this section.
Now that he has described the meaning of Christian love, Pope Francis can move on to a description of conjugal love. This love becomes a visible sign of God’s own love: “When a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God is, as it were, ‘mirrored’ in them; he impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love. Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us.”
Love in marriage grows in a committed, lifelong, faithful sharing of life between the spouses. There is good reason to hope that the love promised on one’s wedding day – however fragile it may seem – can and will pass the test of time. “Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love.” Married love needs the power of God’s grace to strengthen, deepen, and broaden it.
Love in marriage grows when couples can see in one another a beauty both deeper and more permanent than any physical attractiveness. This beauty can be seen, for Pope Francis, only when couples learn to look at one another and see each other’s true worth and beauty. This look of true love also opens the hearts of couples to a deeper joy that will be present not only in easy moments but especially by facing difficult times together so that they might achieve something good. At the same time, love is realistic about the gifts and the limitations of each person. It does not expect perfection. Instead, love invites the spouses to grow together throughout their lives.
In these few words, I have mentioned only a few highlights of this very important chapter of The Joy of Love. If you have not read it, please do so. You may find yourself going back to it – perhaps more than once. It repays slow, repetitive reading. May it be an examination of conscience, a guide and an inspiration for us all!
Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at www.theanchorite.net/.